The Demon Brother
‘I’m the one who’s in charge around here.’
Frosted glass panels, a pattern of melting stars. Body sliding down the door. Vision obscured by a tangle of hair, too shocked for tears, having recently been airborne, propelled by the force of brotherly arms. She doesn’t see his face, only hears him thump off, the full power of his fourteen-year-old bulk demonstrated on the floorboards. Dazed, trembling, fallen, she can hardly recall what she did to provoke him. Did she touch something of his without asking? Make some unsolicited comment about his weight?
But what does it matter when that great form looms overhead, the bunched-up fists and the body mass twice yours. He’s already gone away from her. She brushes the hair from her eyes, gathers herself up off the tiles. Presses her fingers against her back, feeling the damage. Not too bad this time. Sore tomorrow, perhaps, but she’ll bounce back. She’s only just turned eleven; flesh that is subtle, flexible and warm. It’ll take more than a knock like this to twist her out of shape.
No, it’s not the physical hurt that bothers most. It’s the powerlessness of it. Soaring through the air just as if you were a plate, a piece of laundry. Like there isn’t any point in being human at all.
She runs her fingers down the bridge of her nose, testing for a rupture. She knows from experience how it will open and stream red at the slightest provocation. Doesn’t want it spilling on her shirt, besmirching the unblemished floor. Something wet is coming out but it’s only mucus, intermingled possibly with tears. Mushy, whining sounds emanating from her nasal passage, wetness from her eyes – she’s almost drooling. There’s nothing wrong with her, not really.
She hates the ease with which she has allowed herself to be dominated. As if she were made for it: this floor, this shame, these tears.
Later she will recount to her mother what happened. Who sighs and says, ‘He’s always hated that you are better at maths than him.’
This falls into the category of statements that are true but also totally unhelpful for fixing the problem which lies before her.
The next evening they all go to visit Yannie’s aunt. Her mother says, ‘Did I tell you about Yannie’s brush with death yesterday?’ Then they laugh and laugh. She is glad to be able to furnish them with some amusement.
That time against the front door wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.
For a while she and her brother are almost friends, sort of. You have to be: it’s exhausting to maintain the rage in the face of their daily companionship, shared circumstances. Going to the shop for snacks together, helping their mother with the washing-up. Once she is teasing him about his looks. Or he is teasing her, she can’t remember which. He calls her Big Ears and she pretends to be offended. Really she has to admit that it’s true, they stick out like car doors, like the ears of Prince Charles, who they saw in a newspaper once. She calls him Long Hair because their mother hasn’t cut it in weeks. Then he asserts that her nose is too big. (Not the height of wit but you have to make do with this sort of dialogue when you’re eleven and fourteen respectively.)
So it goes. Then he begins tickling. Innocent enough, except she can’t bear it, she can’t even cry out. ‘Stop, Shan, stop,’ she gasps, hugging her armpits. ‘Stop, stop, please, stop.’ Raising her voice now, on the verge of an actual scream, unable to speak through the too muchness of sensation. ‘Stop, just stop tickling me – this is stupid – stop it, Fatso!’
At which point, appropriately enough, the tickling ceases. Instead her brother lifts her by the throat with one hand and pins her bodily to the wall. It all happens so fast, she isn’t sure which comes first or after. She can’t breathe, or maybe she’s just too afraid to. His fingers round her neck. Thumb indenting in the flesh around her windpipe.
‘You will never say that to me again.’ His voice is soft; she sees a muscle jump. No part of her can move at all. She gapes at him, uncomprehending.
‘You will never use that word. Say it to me now.’ She stares, unable to agree or disagree. ‘Repeat it after me.’
His fingers quiver, tightening their grip around her throat. Yannie nods wordlessly, insofar as she can – a short, terrified twitch of the head. Trying not to look him in thes eye. The corner of his lip quivers. You might think it was funny, if it wasn’t him. Natural cold-blooded killer.
He looks at her sideways, eyes slitted. Blank affect, squinting. Then, quite abruptly, he releases her throat so that she slumps downwards, heels which strike the floor. She hears rather than sees his exit, the stamp, stamp, stamp of it, though she can well imagine how he looks. Head in the air, posture of majesty, of pride. She doesn’t even think of going to their parents.
Small she may be, but there must be a way you can defend yourself. In some forgotten drawer she finds a knife: a paper cutter in the modern ‘safety’ style, with a retractable metal blade. Glancing around to make sure no-one is looking, she stows it in her pocket. In her mind’s eye, it shines and shines. She likes to fondle it occasionally. Sometimes she imagines how it would feel to wield it as a weapon. Pressure at the point of contact, piercing skin; the sick texture of flesh giving way.
She knows she’ll never do it. But why?
She reflects at length upon this question. The invisible barrier between what she can dream and what she can accomplish. It shouldn’t be so easy for him or any person to dominate her like that. And yet it is, and she knows it’s partially her fault. In theory there is no end of ways she could defend herself. Gouge the eyes out from his head – it only takes one finger. Slash him with a kitchen knife, grab whatever heavy object and smash it across his china skull. The question of fairness does not concern her. Weapons were invented for the weak; the strong have no need of them.
She loved her brother once. Loved him in an unformed way, at some unspecified point in the past; when they were smaller children, perhaps. Because someone told her that she should, or more than that, because they said that she did, and she believed them– no reason more.
The feeling is still there, but she does nothing to exercise it. Like everything else, loving a person is just a habit, and habits can be broken.
Time passes. Yannie studies hard. Her teachers adore her; they are endlessly impressed by her capacities. They can throw anything at her head: words, equations, whatever. She likes the praise but not as much as she likes the learning. There is so much knowledge in the world, and she is worried she can’t help but miss out on most of it. How do you know when you have reached that point, when you have finally learned enough? You can never read all of the books that have been written – how can you be sure you haven’t missed out the most important part?
You would think the others would despise her, having Yannie’s cleverness rubbed in their faces all the time, but this never eventuates. The girls in her class are generous and practical-minded. They slap her on the back when she achieves a perfect score and ask jokingly if they can pay her to do their homework for them. She has many friendly acquaintances and no close friends, but this isn’t really anybody’s fault. They’re all perfectly kind individual people. She just seems to vibrate on a different frequency from them, that’s all.
When Yannie isn’t studying, she likes reading books. English novels, for the most part, since that’s what’s available. She reads Sherlock Holmes, Jane Austen, Roald Dahl. Sometimes there is sex but this is allowable, because these are classic authors. ‘What makes these books classics?’ she asks the school librarian. ‘It says so on the back. What makes them different from other stories?’
The librarian doesn’t skip a beat. ‘These are classics because they are books that will last forever. They are books that you can never finish reading.’ Yannie furrows her brow. Seeing the question mark remaining on her face, the librarian adds hastily: ‘Anyway, the exact definition doesn’t matter. What matters is that you must read, read, read! Reading is like vitamins for the mind. Better than the trash that’s on TV.’
Yannie nods, although in fact she’d watch TV all day if she could. The reason she doesn’t is because they don’t have one. Too expensive, her mother says, don’t look at me with that black face, don’t you know I can’t sleep because of money and how your father works to pay for your food, your lessons, extra classes? You are killing your father, you are murdering him, he has high blood pressure, don’t you think about that, do you care about anyone but yourself? Crying, are you, cry away, these are crocodile tears, you cry only for yourself. Yannie’s mother says this, and continues to say it, and talks, and talks, and grows more and more agitated as she goes on so her eyes begin to bulge and her face contorts until she interrupts the monologue to take a reading of her own blood pressure using the second-hand blood pressure monitor which belonged to Uncle Ah Keng before he died. And this, indeed, reveals that said pressure has become elevated, and now Yannie has become the prospective murderer of not one but two parents, and how do you sleep at night?
But sometimes the family next door lets her sit with them in front of the television, which Yannie does with great fixity of purpose. In the not-so-distant future, ships will cruise among the stars, exploring worlds in streaks of dissolving light. The faces of the characters bleed into her sleep, into her everyday existence. Actual life should be more like this: the swooning hush, redemptive peaks of feeling. She is the daydreamer to end all daydreamers; give her a window and she’ll stare out of it. Things which aren’t real captivate her far more than things that are.
Her maths teacher, an old man with questionable eyebrows, offers unsolicited advice. ‘Yannie, you have a special talent. You can go far. But if you are going to achieve anything, you must get out of this country. There isn’t any future here. I hate to say it about my own homeland but it’s the truth. There isn’t any future for people like us. I shouldn’t tell you this, but when they play the national anthem I have no feeling at all. I put my hand across my heart but there’s nothing there. What can I do? It’s still the home where I was born.’ He looks at her sadly, laughs an old-person laugh. ‘You don’t even know what I’m talking about, do you? You’re too young to know what it means to have a home. You can live anywhere you like. You must be successful. When you are young life is fun, you can do anything you like. I am old and my life is not fun anymore.’
This is a favourite refrain of the old people Yannie encounters. How terrible life will be when she is like them. There must be something about her face, maybe, that invites these confidences. She listens politely; that is, she doesn’t actually turn her back while they are speaking. She cannot believe that she and they are members of the same species. She hasn’t got any intention of growing old: not now, not here.
Still, her teacher’s words – You can go far – reverberate in her consciousness. How far can I go? Where? Anywhere, anywhere but here: a name in the credits at the cinema, a by-line in the newspaper. Oh yes, she thinks, I’d like to go as far as I can. She likes all of her subjects, maths and languages and science. But her favourite activity, by far, is writing passionate argumentative essays. It doesn’t matter what the assignment is, she will find you as many reasons as you like, and then some extra. That school uniforms should be banned. That national service should be compulsory. That the Church should be kept separate from the state. Ask her any question, metaphysical or practical, and she will solve it for you in eight to fourteen paragraphs, each with a topic sentence. Like shooting ducks, it says in her English idiom book. Although this strikes her as an odd form of recreation.
She puts these powers of persuasion to the test within the family home, but in contrast to her school-based triumphs, here she never seems to get very far. All she has to do is open her mouth for someone to say, ‘Oh, Yannie, Yannie, we’re talking about something serious now, can you be quiet?’ It’s a fact so well established no-one knows exactly where it originated: no need to listen to Yannie, she just talks nonsense, exaggerates, makes things up. ‘When have I done that?’ Yannie tries to ask, but they just laugh – indulgently, if they’re in a good mood. Can a belief held universally be untrue? Over time, her family’s belief in her stupidity becomes its own justification. Knowing in advance the contempt with which her words will be received, she feels her brain fog up and all intelligence deserts her. In making a case for the most trivial of questions – what they should have for dinner, for example – she does a fine impression of being slow and dull.
Incidents with her brother continue to occur. They aren’t frequent; nor do they need to be. He hits her not often, but effectively: all of a sudden the floor is looming and she’s uncertain which way is up or down or sideways. The surprise has worn off, leaving only rage that washes through like cold water.
The worst is that he is family. If he were a stranger, things would be different. Out in the world you can do anything to defend yourself if you are ruthless enough, possessed of a will to survive and survive. If I was attacked by a man in the street, she thinks, I could kick, bite, stab. No-one would judge me for fighting back, least of all me. I could call the police and they would take my enemy away. He wouldn’t even be my enemy – I wouldn’t know enough about him to hate him. I might not recognise his face at all.
There is a new girl at school, Shuying, in the year below. Gawky, angular, boyish, thin straight legs. Short hair that floats in a thick brush above her shoulders. Shuying herself appears to float through life, borne aloft by a bubble of unconscious charm and vigorous good humour. When she is thinking or listening carefully, her eyes widen at the sides.
Yannie first notices her competing in the high jump at the school athletics day, crouched at the start with her fingers splayed. With easy grace, she rises up and begins to jog, arms moving precisely but not too fast, like lazy pistons. Then she accelerates, an effortless ramping up of power from her haunches. She explodes into violence at the jump; just for a moment she’s suspended at the apex, back arched over the pole. A feather on the breath of the sublime, with a perfect wall of light behind her.
They get to know each other through singing practice. They do harmonies together – Shuying takes the lower part, Yannie the higher. They have fun but when they aren’t busy ‘doing’ something, Shuying turns shy. They aren’t proper friends, after all. Yannie is eighteen months older, which might as well be decades apart in high school terms.
But Shuying likes hanging around with her, there’s no doubt about that. She is in awe of Yannie’s quickness, her articulateness, the repository of interesting facts she always seems to have at her disposal. Yannie finds herself taking surreptitious dips into the library encyclopaedia, to replenish her diminishing stock of said facts.
Sometimes after singing practice they walk to the bus stop together, swinging their arms and humming tunes they’ve just learned. Yannie would not describe her state of mind as happy at such moments. Rather she feels raw, like a being without skin, no barrier between herself and the rest of the world. Everything about this scene, this experience, becomes engraved into her memory. The inflections of feeling around Shuying’s lips. How her eyes narrow and widen again each time a new idea occurs. The slow droop of her perfect eyelids. She never asks Shuying what she is thinking about; nor does she try to imagine what those ideas might be. It is enough to be near her. Anything more might be catastrophic, an ungovernable overflow of feeling.
She wins the prize for first in her grade, third year in a row. Her mother goes ‘Hmm!’ and then says nothing. Her father never says anything at all. But she can tell, from the faint smile wavering round his lips, that he is proud of her.
– S.L. Lim, Revenge: Murder in Three Parts (Transit Lounge)